Everyone likes to win. I tell my club and high school swimmers all the time that we want to have fun and winning is a LOT of fun. Since there is only one winner in any given race or competition, many people will go through life never "winning" at anything; or so they think. One of my biggest pet peeves as a coach is when an athlete I work with compares their success or performance to someone else's. I understand it to some degree, because we all naturally compare ourselves to a standard. But the reality is that when I evaluate an athlete and look at their performance, I'm not comparing them to another person, I'm comparing them to a former version of themselves.
I wrote a piece a few years ago on my personal website called "The Crown Goes not to the Victor" about this similar concept. It's not the accomplishment of winning that is as important as the steps you take, the "journey" if you will, to get there. That's because winning is a mindset that requires daily attention to detail and a daily desire to succeed. No great champion achieves an Olympic gold medal without 100% focus on their goal. Here's the thing though: winning does not equal perfection. I think that's where we can often get held up. No one has a perfect build-up to an event, no one has a perfect race, there is no such thing as the perfect LIFE. There are always hiccups along the way, setbacks, roadblocks, you take two steps forward and one step back. That's the nature of sports and it's the nature of life. Winning isn't about not struggling, it's about how you approach and embrace the struggle.
If we accept the fact that there will be struggles and dark days along the way, then we can avoid getting discouraged when those moments come. It's easy to adopt a defeatist mindset when we don't feel like winners. But if we release ourselves from the internal pressure of needing to feel like winners, it frees us up to keep plugging away through the tough times. This is important, because THAT is the mindset that the great winners and champions have. They don't need the actual gold medal in their hands to believe that they are a champion. They know it already, because they know they've done everything in their power to be the best they can be.
I had a ten year old girl on my swim last year that displayed this mindset better than anyone I've ever seen. She joined our team as an "ok" swimmer who had a few "B" time cuts, but nothing remarkable. One day during a goal setting talk at practice, she set a goal for herself of achieving an "A" time in the 200 free within the next year. To achieve that time standard she needed to drop about 30 seconds in her 200 freestyle, which is a LOT of time to drop. I didn't want to discourage her, but I didn't really think it was possible. She proved me wrong.
Many of us are really good at setting goals. It's the daily work ethic required to achieve those goals we aren't so good at. What this little girl did over the next 6 months was show up to practice every day with a beaming smile on her face and relentless desire to push herself to the limit. She attacked every set we did like it was the only set that month. There were days that she was obviously struggling because her body was tired and she was going wayyyy slower than her goal times. My assistant coach, JD, and I would look at each other and hope she didn't notice how slow she was swimming. She did notice, but she didn't get discouraged. She would hop out of the pool at the end of practice, still smiling from ear to ear and tell us she'd see us tomorrow. She'd come back the next day and dive in for another round, pushing herself deep and seeing what she could do. She missed practices occasionally. Sometimes her mom couldn't drive her or she didn't finish all of her school work. She went on family vacations and had real life get in the way (or at least as much real life as a 10 year old has). But she would always make the best of her situation, brush it aside and wake up the next day ready to do what she could. THAT'S a winning mindset. Naturally, she hit her "A" time and kept getting faster. It's impossible to not improve with that kind of approach.
That little girl gave me insight into what being a winner looks like. There are still many swimmers faster than her and she almost never wins races because of that. She doesn't care though, she gets better every time she dives in the pool. She may not be on the top step of the podium, but you'd better believe Delaney wakes up a winner every single day. When I grow up, I want to be just like her.
"Winning does not mean being first, winning means
You are doing better than what you've done before."